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February 18, 2016

Letter: What to consider when modernizing Pitt’s IP policy

To the editor:

The chancellor and provost have recognized that Pitt’s copyright, patent and conflict of interest policies need modernization, and a policy committee is currently working to rewrite these policies. This is the first step in a process of review and projected adoption of new policies that could influence the University for decades to come. (

The most important proposals to be produced by this committee will be the new policies on ownership of intellectual property (IP). This is because other policies for transfer, dissemination or sale of IP will follow from who owns what aspect of intellectual work and its products.

Pitt’s current invention (patent) ownership policy is overbearing, and its validity was dented by the 2011 Supreme Court decision in the Stanford v. Roche case. Pitt’s copyright ownership policy is presumably valid, but that does not mean that it is optimal. Modernization is needed.

University scholars create and share knowledge for the common good. As scholars, we enthusiastically endorse commercialization as one of a number of ways to disseminate knowledge. Visions of revenue can incentivize companies to drive our creations and discoveries into the community and the economy. However, it is the dissemination of knowledge, not the visions of revenue, that drives the University.

Any University ownership policy should be based on sound academic principles and should emerge from discussions among all interested parties, as implied by the principles of joint governance. The policy should have equitable distribution of ownership and should encourage scholars to develop IP. Here we suggest seven aspects to consider for formulation of a new policy:

We oppose global present assignments and related legal tools for securing University ownership of broad swaths of future IP. These legal tools are standard in corporations but have no place in universities. All existing present assignments should be terminated as soon as possible.

We disagree with the reasoning that the University is entitled to claim IP because it provides resources to its scholars. This reasoning is upside-down; scholars enable the flow of resources (grant funds, tuition, etc.) to the University. Relatedly, we disagree with the reasoning that the University can claim IP because its scholars work for (or attend) the University. Scholars are not engaged to create IP, so the University has no entitlement when they do.

We support a default policy of scholar ownership of newly created IP. This is consistent with U.S. IP law, which stipulates that IP is initially owned by its creators.

We support a flexible policy that allows discretionary transfer of ownership of IP from scholars to the University (or other entities) in return for added value such as protection of IP, funding, development, eventual commercialization or other considerations.

We believe that all University scholars should be treated equally under the policy. Differential treatment based on position (student or faculty member, for example), start date or location within the University is unfounded.

We support the notion that all IP should be treated consistently. This includes new documents, course materials, computer code, works of art, inventions and more. Different types of IP require different policies by nature, but the same academic principles should be reflected in the different policies;

Finally, and perhaps most importantly:

We urge the chancellor and provost to recognize that all scholars have an unbridgeable right to release their intellectual creations or discoveries into the public domain. Scholars alone decide whether to disclose their work publicly or to seek IP protection under the relevant University policy.

In the end, Pitt’s new IP policies — especially the ownership policies — will say much about our values as a university. Tight administrative control stifles creativity and discovery. Only through scholar-friendly ownership and technology-transfer policies can we fuel the University’s engine of innovation.

Dennis P. Curran
Distinguished Service Professor and
Bayer Professor of Chemistry

Thomas Hales
Andrew Mellon Professor of Mathematics

Joanne I. Yeh
Associate Professor, Structural Biology

(Editor’s note: Five additional faculty members’ names were included on this letter.)


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